Osaka is known as the kitchen of Japan 天下の台所, since the Edo period. While tourists will agree with such an accolade, due to the wide selection of local cuisine available at Dotonbori, Shin sekai, and Kuromon Market, it was never intended to regard Osaka as a food haven originally.
During the Edo period, Osaka was a focal point of domestic trade. Many warehouses were built to facilitate storage and distribution of rice and other goods. In the past, the kitchen was the part of the Japanese home that stored the most items (one should notice this detail while watching period dramas). Hence Osaka became known as the kitchen of Japan.
Rotation sushi 回転寿司
The typical image of kaiten sushi 回転寿司 (literally rotation sushi) is restaurant chains that offer low to mid priced sushi affordable to most people. The conveyor belt has become such a common feature that most people would hardly think about its origins. It is a little known fact even to modern day Japanese, that the first conveyor belt sushi restaurant was born in Osaka. Having lived in Osaka for 2 years, I only came to know of this fact while watching a television programme. Sushi certainly comes to mind when we say Japan, but when we say Osaka, most people will probably identify it with takoyaki and okonomiyaki.
In this article, I shall introduce three sushi restaurants that offers sushi at affordable prices.
Mawaru Genrokuzushi - The Original
The founder of conveyor belt sushi, Mr Yoshiaki Shiraishi (1914-2001) was struggling with managing his sushi restaurant, when he had a flash of inspiration during a visit to an Asahi brewery, where beer bottles were moved through the production process by conveyor. After 5 years of development, Mawaru Genrokuzushi元祖廻る元禄寿司, the first conveyor belt sushi restaurant opened in 1958 and quickly became a local hit. However it was only after the concept was featured in the Osaka World Expo 1970 where it was widely received that conveyor belt sushi began to take flight across Japan.
While there are outlets located in downtown Osaka, I decided to cycle to the main branch in Higashiosaka, the birthplace of 回転寿司. (Note that when there is a word before sushi, it is spoken as zushi)
I was a little disappointed that it looked just like any regular outlet - the interior was bright and modern looking, without any trace of its historical significance. Perhaps the lack of touchscreen interface and RFID plates are intended to retain its original feel.
The menu is user-friendly to tourists as it is in both Japanese and English. All the sushi on the conveyor belt are priced at 135 yen after tax unless otherwise stated. As there is no touchscreen, you have to place an order verbally if you prefer to have sushi freshly prepared.
I shall not go into great length about the taste, as neither am I a qualified gourmet nor am I writing a food blog. I will say that the fish tasted fresher and better than what I had at the larger budget chains such as Kura sushi or Kappa sushi.
In its heyday this restaurant chain had more than 200 outlets across Japan. Today it has dwindled to a mere 10 all within the region of Osaka. Perhaps a victim of its early success, and due to competition from other restaurant chains with more financial muscle that subsequently established themselves nationwide. Nonetheless we all have to thank Mawaru Genrokuzushi for introducing conveyor belt to the world.
Kappa Sushi - Family restaurant style
I shall now introduce かっぱ寿司 Kappa Sushi, as a representation of the modern day conveyor belt sushi chain restaurants such as Sushi-ro and Hamazushi.
Some people shun sushi from the conveyor belt as they wonder how long they have been circulating around. Rest assured that various restaurants have their own ways of ensuring freshness, such as the use of RFID tags.
The touchscreen interface may be familiar to foreign tourists as some Japanese chains have established overseas outlets. There is a multi-language option where you can select English, Chinese, or Korean if you are not proficient in Japanese.
One of the joys of ordering sushi via touchscreen here is definitely the sushi train. Once your order has been prepared, the sushi is delivered by a train that travels along the track above the conveyor belt and stops right in front of you, just like an arriving train pulling into a station. Collect the sushi, press the button on the touchscreen to acknowledge the order and the train will head back to the kitchen. Click here if you have never seen a sushi train before.
All you can eat!
Last year, Kappa Sushi launched a weekday lunch buffet promotion that was so well received that they have now made it available throughout the year (minus Golden Week and other public holidays) For just about 1800 yen, you can have your fill of food and drinks for 60 minutes. This is probably the only budget sushi restaurant chain that is offering a buffet option.
Making a reservation is a breeze with its app, available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play. While there is no multi-language option, navigating the app should be manageable even for beginner Japanese learners. After creating an account, select the branch location and arrival time slot, preferred seating (individual customer will be given counter seat facing the conveyor belt instead of table seat) and you will be given a email acknowledgement. On the day of the reservation, you will be asked to confirm the reservation on the app. Simply show the reservation number on the app when you arrive.
There are about 30 variations of of sushi you can choose from the buffet option. Do note that you should only select from the All you can eat tab if you only intend to pay the buffet price. Sushi found on the other tabs such as Today's Special will incur and additional bill.
There's nothing much to shout about the taste. Kappa Sushi is like what Saizeriya is amongst family restaurants - you won't go hungry with the abundance of choice, but neither will you be raving about the dining experience to your friends or colleagues. This is the cheapest place to film yourself feasting if you are just a regular person instead of a competitive eater who gets invited to fancier joints for television filming. (One guy filmed himself downing 77 plates here on Youtube)
Kaitenzushi Tora - Hidden gem
I had just visited あびこ観音寺 Abiko Kannon Temple and was walking along the nearby neighbourhood shopping street when I chanced upon this restaurant. At first glance, it appeared to be a Hanshin Tigers themed hair salon.
What struck me was the base price of 105 yen per plate. It is unthinkable that the price is pegged to what large budget restaurant chains offer, as this small, relatively unknown shop (merely 48 local reviews on Google Maps) can't possibly enjoy the same economies of scale. I was also curious to find out how a conveyor belt could fit in such a small space.
While it might be more appropriate to label it as a shop instead of a restaurant due to its size, it was functioning well just like any full-fledged restaurant. I was seated at the far end with one seat empty to my left, so this row can seat about 10 customers, with another 2 or 3 seats on the other side near the door and cashier.
The system is similar to other places - you can simply take any sushi that you fancy off the conveyor belt. All the sushi are of the same base price unless otherwise stated. (On the menu it says 100 yen, so I guess this is the base price before taxes, while the sign outside indicated the price after tax when GST was still at 5% before it was raised to 8% in 2014)
Likewise you can request for sushi to be freshly prepared. Do note that the menu is only in English and that the staff do not speak English - after all this is a restaurant that primarily serves neighbourhood residents. If you speak hardly any Japanese, be content with eating off the conveyor belt, but at least do try and say お会計 o kai kei at the end of your meal so that the staff will come over and tally the bill.
I felt that the sushi here tasted just as good as what I had at Mawaru Genrokuzushi, but the ambience is somewhat more enjoyable. I also believe that a small restaurant is more able to retain quality control compared to a restaurant that serves up to 100 customers at any given time. Run merely by just 2 or 3 people (I only counted 1 cashier and 1 chef, both of whom are middle-aged ladies) without the distraction of tourists and boisterous children in tow, this place proved to be a more authentic dining experience. It was also easier to imagine how the founder of conveyor belt sushi was struggling with managing a sushi restaurant back then.
I'd strongly recommend 回転ずしとら Kaitenzushi Tora if you are visiting Abiko Kannon Temple, or Nagai Park, which is merely one station away on the subway. For more more information, here is the link to its website
While sushi is not a signature food of Osaka, you may still wish to experience conveyor belt sushi since the concept was born in Osaka.
One can easily obtain information on dining by a multitude of smartphone apps. While reviews such as those on Google Maps tend to be mixed, one observation is that expectations of some tourists seemed to be mismatched - they expect attentive service even during peak period and to be understood in English, or customising their order not due to any allergy but simply out of taste preference.
If you are not travelling on a tight schedule and prefer a pleasant dining experience without any likelihood of meeting obnoxious tourists, perhaps check out restaurants that are further away from the usual tourist hot spots. If you are a beginner Japanese learner, this should also make you more inclined to learn basic Japanese terms commonly used in restaurants and practice speaking and listening to Japanese restaurant staff.